Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Long Road Home

It has already been a busy season in our lives.  The past few months have been filled with seminars, conferences, and travel - all good and meaningful and helpful for us personally and in our ministry.  We were nearing the end of a long stretch - and looking very forward to returning to the village with Hannah - to spend a few months in the quiet chaos of the routine, yet different, daily life in the village.  This would be our last months with her in the village, as she just graduated from high school and will soon be heading to the US.

Now remember, for those of you who know me, I kinda like routine, and lists, and plans, and calendars……I “do” that well.  So life was cruising along as smoothly as life can in a west African country…..a few hiccups of delayed flights, but nothing this girl couldn’t handle.  And then it all fell apart!

We had been in Senegal for two weeks, celebrating Hannah’s graduation.  We had a great time - visited with friends, relaxed a bit, got some work done, visited a sustainable agriculture center, celebrated Hannah - and now it was time to go home.  With flight schedules being what they are, we were “stuck” in Dakar a few extra days after graduation - waiting for our return flight on Monday morning at 6:30 am (which meant a 4 am departure from the guesthouse.) 

Hannah was returning to the village after being at boarding school for 3 years - and she had managed to accumulate quite a bit of stuff.  We sorted and tossed, and participated in a garage sale.  But there was still much to bring back.  No worries, I thought - we each get 30 kilos to bring back - and Jim and I didn’t have that much stuff with us, so we would be fine.  So confident was I that I even went shopping at the “American” store and bought a few overpriced goodies to bring back with us.  We had been carefully watching our budget during our 2 week stay - rarely going out to eat  - knowing that the guesthouse was going to be a big expense. 

As we packed, it became apparent that Hannah had more stuff than I anticipated.  We were able to off load a bit with friends who were traveling back to Guinea by vehicle…. but by the night before we left, I could see that we were clearly going to be over the weight limit.  We had NO idea what that would mean at the airport.  We had friends over for supper Sunday night and I gave them a bunch of food - including some of my goodies from the American store that just wouldn't fit.  Hannah left lots of stuff behind for the guest house workers and we finally got the trunks to weight (and our carry ons to a bit over - but we decided to just try it and hope for the best!)

Monday morning early we got into our rented taxi and took off for the airport - arriving around 4:30 am.  As we entered the airport, we noticed that our flight was not listed on the monitor.  I wasn't overly worried, as they are not always accurate - but it was a bit concerning.  We had our trunks wrapped with plastic wrap and went to find the check in desk.  No one was manning the desk…. but it was still a bit early.  5 am came - and still no one.  So I went to the airline office.  I knocked on the locked door and waved at the lady behind the desk and the man talking to her.  Nothing - except a motion to wait.  So I did, for about 10 minutes.  More people started coming - more knocking - more motions to wait.  Finally someone squeaked the wheel and they opened the door.  We asked why there wasn't anyone at the desk. 

NO flight today….. 

No one had a answer and they were unwilling to say when the next flight would be.  Ok then.  So we finally gave up and left - grabbing a taxi at the entrance - whose driver insisted our stuff would all fit - and it did (barely) - with Hannah and I and 3 carryons and 2 backpacks shoved into the back seat of a little taxi.  Back to the guesthouse we went, sneaking back into our old rooms and crashing until we could talk to the manager.  We were hungry and tired - but we had given away all of our food the night before.  Eventually we were able to grab something to eat, confirm that we could spend another night or 2 if necessary, and got ahold of our travel agent to ask about rebooking.   And then we waited. And we waited.  Flights in and out of CKY are not easy to come by…..  There was no sense in going to the grocery store, since we didn't know how long we would be staying.  We took a nap and then walked to a restaurant to eat a nice lunch.

After lunch, we were watching a show and “surfing” the internet when we got a text from my mom, saying that Jim’s mom had been desperately trying to get ahold of us with bad news - our brother- in-law, Art (Jim’s sister’s husband) had died unexpectedly a few hours before.  We were heartbroken for Renee.  We were able to call right away and talk with the family - to cry together and express our love and sympathy.  We got off the phone and I told Jim - We need to look into getting you back to the States.  We decided to contact our travel agent - just to see what that looked like - flights, costs, etc.  We sent out an email and also gave him a call to verify that he was working that day.  He was - and within 15 minutes, he wrote back to say that there was a flight leaving at 9 pm - and could Jim make that?  That meant that the flight left in about 3 hours and 45 minutes.  

 International travel recommends a 3 hour early check-in time,  meaning Jim needed to be out the door - grabbing a taxi - within 30 minutes or so.  Wow - ok - not much time to decide.  We decided to go for it.  We hurriedly emailed to say - YES, buy the tickets, and tried to get Jim packed.  It is hard to think when you are moving so fast - processing and packing and contacting people.  About 10 minutes before Jim walked out the door, I said - Man, it is too bad we can’t send a trunk back with you of Hannah’s keepsakes!”  He said - Why not? 

So we took a trunk and dumped it upside down on the bed - and opened the other 2 trunks, and started throwing things in.  We missed a LOT that we could have sent - but we got about 25 kilos in.  I kissed him, prayed over him, and sent him out the door.

It felt a bit like - WHAT just happened????

I moved into Hannah’s room and we grabbed some supper.  We got frequent texts from Jim - letting us know that he had arrived (after running into tons of traffic, getting stuck in the sand, getting into a fender-bender, and his taxi driver nearly coming to blows with another driver!), checked in, and was waiting, and then boarding the plane.  He was even able to text us from Brussels to say that he was ok and had arrived.

Tuesday morning, we still had no confirmation that we could get a flight back to CKY.  It was a frustrating day of communicating with the travel agent in CKY and the airline office in Dakar.  They found a flight for Wednesday AM - but kept issuing tickets for Jim and I  - and not for Hannah - no matter how many times I explained that Jim was on his way to the US and Hannah and I needed tickets.  I didn’t want the guesthouse manager to leave before had a chance to get tickets printed for our return.  Finally, late Tuesday evening, we had it confirmed and tickets in hand for an early flight the next morning.

Another 4 am trip to the airport - this time with luggage that was clearly over the weight limit.  WE had learned that we were going to pay about $2 for every pound that we were over - and we were about 45 pounds over - including our carry-ons.  I was praying for grace - but prepared to pay.

When we went to shrink wrap our bags, the worker asked what airlines I was flying.  I told him - he said, oh, these are too heavy.  I said, I know - I am going to have to pay.  He said - Let me find someone on the flight who doesn't have much luggage and they can claim some of yours……
What a sweet gesture from a humanity standpoint - but a horrible idea from a security one….. apparently it is done often here.  I told him- no thanks, we will be fine.

We checked in - the agent told me that the bags were over the weight allowance - I explained why - and she sent me to the office with a ticket stub to pay - though she only wrote down what we were over in the trunks  (not the carryons)— so about 22 pounds over.  When I got to the office, I was supposed to be charged about $42 - but when I explained everything, she ended giving $10 back to me.  I was so thankful.  The extra 48 hours in Dakar were not cheap - with eating out, taxis, and more nights at the guesthouse.  This extra bit of grace was a blessing

Finally we were checked through and waiting at our gate.  Our plane was on the runway - that seemed like a good sign.  We were scheduled to arrive in CKY around 8:30 am, which would be perfect timing for me to get to a talk that I was supposed to give to some interns about medical work in Guinea.

We sat and visited, even saw some friends who were flying out on a slightly later flight than we were.  They were called to board before us, which seemed strange.  None of the agents seemed to be getting ready to board the passengers for our flight.  6 am came and went, 6:30am, and then 7 am….  no movement.  I finally found the agent who had checked us in and asked what the problem was.  Explanation:  the crew was napping!  What?!?!?   

Apparently they were on a scheduled break, napping on the plane while we sat waiting…..  “They need their rest.”  Ummm, me TOO!!!!  Since I got up at 3 am, I was getting a bit fussy.  I needed my rest too.  Finally, around 8 am, I saw someone pull a stairs up to the plane and knock on the door…… and it opened.  Movement started and we were boarding around 8:30 am  - so much for making my 9 am appointment.  Seriously!!!

We finally landed in CKY, breezed through customs, grabbed our bags, and were out the door to find Mr. Bah waiting for us.  We drove straight to the compound where I had my meeting, grabbed lunch, and then headed back to the guesthouse.

Now, our BIG, overwhelming job was to find a new guesthouse apartment in CKY.  The owner of our current guesthouse apartment had decided to sell the building and we needed to get out ASAP.  The manager had a villa that he would rent to us, but the cost was more than we could afford without someone subletting the studio apartment and we had not been able to find anyone.  We could live there for 3 months at the same price we were paying for our current apartment (since we didn't get the 3 month notice), but that meant moving again - which I was NOT interested in doing, if I could avoid it.  I had contacted a guy who helps people find houses/apartments and he had a few ready to show me.  We were going to start early on Thursday.  He said - “I found one that is so great - 3 bedrooms, 4 baths, nice pool, tennis court, and the same price as your pay now.  The location is near where all your friends live.”  Whatever - sounded WAY too good to be true so I didn’t have my hopes up.

Thursday Am we took off to see this “perfect” apartment - and it WAS!!!  So beautiful, great location, great people to work with, same price (except a few extra utilities we didn’t have to pay at the old place)!  Amazing!  Because he already had others lined up, we saw 2 others.  One would have been workable - though there was no way to do laundry there, which would have been a huge bummer.  And we took off to see the last place.   

When we arrived, we learned that it had already rented, but the man said that he had a different apartment we could look at.  So we wound our way up a tiny staircase to a little 2 bedroom apartment that looked like something out of the Hoarders show.  We could barely walk between the piles of stuff (including canned peas????) on the floor.  There were about 6 men sitting on couches in the apartment, and there were dirty dishes everywhere.  They said - we can move out right away - no problem.  I was like - Ummm, no thanks…..

By Friday AM, I had contacted the owner of the first apartment, set up a meeting, and signed a lease.  They were busily trying to finish up some work on the closets and cabinets and promised it would be clean and move in ready by Monday.  So Hannah and I spent the weekend packing and sorting.   I said to Mr Bah - this isn't going to be hard.  It is just 2 rooms of stuff - not filled with personal stuff.  And he said - You never realize how much stuff you have until you try to move!  Wise, wise man!!!  Apparently he has helped white people move before!

Mission guesthouses can be a “crap trap” - since no one lives there full time, people are afraid to throw stuff away.  Take for instance the pile of padlock keys sitting on the desk.  I gave Hannah the padlocks we had (for the doors) and said, throw away anything that doesn't match.  And she did.

Monday morning, bright and early, the big truck we had hired (Mr. Bah “knew” a guy, as usual) , complete with the strong young men, arrived to help us move.  I had arranged for some friends to meet us at the new apartment to help us unload on that side.  And so the moving began, dragging a 2 bedroom apartment full of stuff down the stairs.  As we loaded furniture from the bedroom, we discovered one of the chairs would not fit through the door.  Apparently it had been brought in through the patio door.  They asked me to open it - and that was when I discovered that it was locked in 3 places with padlocks - which apparently “matched”  some of those keys that I had Hannah throw away a few days before!   

We were in trouble.  We very rarely ever open that door - so I had COMPLETELY forgotten about it.  I called a friend and asked him to bring a hacksaw.  He agreed.  As the guys continued to load the truck, a thought hit me.  Maybe the trash hadn't been picked up yet.  So I ran downstairs to the trash barrel and began to pull out bags.  Now, trash and African heat are not a pleasant combination!  I found one that seemed right and ripped it open.  Digging through the maggots,  I found the pile of keys Hannah had thrown away for me!  They matched….

We packed up the big truck, along with our Hilux, and headed over - running into tons of traffic.  We arrived to find that the apartment was not nearly as “move in” ready as we had hoped…  they were still cleaning and fixing.  But we didn’t have a choice - we just started stacking stuff in the corner.  Once unloaded, I gave our friends money to get lunch for everyone and ran back for another load.  We were pulling in to the new place and were unloading the last piece of furniture when it began to pour.

We were able to set up beds and start unpacking and cleaning.  Tuesday we unpacked and ran a few errands.

Now that we were moved, I could start my shopping for food to take back to the village, so Wednesday we spend the day doing banking and shopping.  We showed up at the bank, and filled out a withdrawal slip to get our $5000 that we had wire transferred over.  They called me into the office - No dice, we could only have $4000 - we needed to come back another time…..  Ummmm, no thanks.  The bank, while in CKY, is all the way downtown - meaning at least a 45 min drive (one way) - or more on a bad traffic day.   Well, the guy said, you will have to talk to the manager.  Me - OK!  Do you think I should hold his feet (a way of begging) or start crying?  The guy was alarmed - PLEASE don’t do that!!!!  It made me laugh.  I begged and they consented and we walked out with the money.

Thursday I ran more errands, and then went to pick Jim up at the airport.  The parking lot of hopping - as several flights were all coming in around the same time.  We parked in the back lot.  After a while, Mr Bah spotted a parking space closer to the exit and we moved.  I saw Jim’s plane land and texted him to let him know I was waiting.  I was SUPER excited to see him after 10 days.  When people started coming out of the airport, I got out of the truck to wait for him.   

A security guy motioned me forward saying, “You can’t stand all the way back there.  The person you are waiting for will think you didn’t come and will take a taxi home.”  I said - there is ZERO chance of that happening since I am waiting for my husband.  ‘Oh,” he said, “then I will help you find him.”   ??????  I was thinking - You have never seen my husband - how are you going to find him for me?  He ran up to the front of the exit and waited.  Then he ran back to report that Jim hadn’t come out yet (thanks for the update!) and then ran back to his waiting spot.   

A few minutes later, I saw Jim come out.  I waved and he waved back.  The security guy noticed us waving and fell into place beside Jim - walking with him to the vehicle.  “See, I found him!”  Excellent - couldn’t have done it without you!!!!  We got the stuff loaded and the security guy wanted some money for “his help”.  Umm, I don’t think so!  I shook his hand and told him thanks and we were on our way.

Friday and Saturday we finished up shopping, ran errands, and collected and packed a medical shipment waiting for us at a warehouse on the mission compound.  All was set for us to head home on Monday - we were hoping to make it to SLM where our team has houses - but knew that we could stop at a mission compound closer if the trip took longer than expected.  We would be driving two vehicles and that usually makes the trip go more slowly - as the road is windy and you often get stuck behind other vehicles and passing can be hard.

By Saturday afternoon, I started to feel achy ALL over - by that evening, I felt horrible.  I was running a fever, threw up once, and had runny belly.  By Sunday morning, I could barely put one foot in front of the other.  I knew there was no way that I would be able to drive the whole way home on Monday. 

Often Mr. Bah drives for us - but this was in the middle of Ramadan and he is a practicing M**lim.  They are required to fast during daylight hours - and then they eat like crazy at night.  They eat way more meat (pretty unavailable in the village) because they need the energy to get them through the day.  (And this is probably very un-PC - but people who fast all day, every day, for weeks at a time get crabby and move slowly.  I feel like people should have their licenses revoked during that time.  You would be AMAZED at the number of fist-fights between drivers during fast month!)  Because arranging feeding for his trip was going to be complicated, we decided that it would be better for Jim and I both to drive.

We delayed leaving until Tuesday.  Tuesday AM, at 5:30, we headed out - Hannah and I in our Land Cruiser and Jim in our teammates Hilux.  Both vehicles were loaded - but not overly so.  The Hilux had 2 mattresses and a metal cabinet on the roof - not super heavy, but bulky.  The trip as progressing well.  Normally it is about 5 - 6 hours to Mamou and about 9 total to SLM.  About 3 hours into the trip, Jim began to notice the the temperature gauge on the Hilux was climbing.  We stopped and checked fluid levels - everything looked fine.  We kept driving, but it wouldn't cool down.   

The road was starting to get mountainous, and he turned on the heat in the truck- but no go.  We stopped and let it cool down a few times.  Finally we decided that maybe the wind resistance from the load on top was causing the problem, so Jim and Hannah managed to slide it over onto the Cruiser and strap it back down.  That sentence makes it sound SO easy - but it was bulky and awkward!  As we were pulled over, a white Land Cruiser pulled in ahead of us.  It was colleagues of our who live in Mamou (a few hours away) - they were on their way home after being gone for a few weeks.  They asked if they could help, and assured us that that they had a mechanic in Mamou who would be willing to look at the truck once we got there. 

Finally we were back on the road, hoping that lightening the load would do the trick.  It wasn't long before I saw Jim put on his blinker and pull over.  No dice.  Still overheating!  We were hoping to limp into Mamou - still about 2 hours away - so we drove a bit, and stopped and let it cool off, and then repeated the same process.  We stopped for lunch alongside the windy highway - the vehicle barely off the road.  We found a sort of clear spot and prayed that we didn’t get bitten by a snake lurking in the grass.

The mountains were getting bigger - and we had barely taken off after lunch when Jim pulled over again.  We finally decided that I would need to tow him.  Towing is NOT my favorite thing to do - even on a long, straight path.  But add to it windy mountainous roads with crazy traffic, and you have the ingredients for an ulcer.  But we had no choice.  We hooked up the 2 trucks, and with Hannah watching behind, we headed out.  It actually went pretty well and soon we were in a nearby town where I pulled into the parking lot of an abandoned hotel.  At least now we were off the road and not in danger of being hit.

We called Dan in Mamou and asked if he could send his mechanic to us.  There were issues with the mechanic’s motorcycle, so Dan graciously offered to drive him to us.  It was about an hour drive from Mamou.  We were running out of water, so Hannah and I took the Cruiser and went into town to buy some bottled water.

As we waited for the mechanic, I began to think about the 2 coolers of meat and other stuff we were transporting to the village.  We had packed the coolers the night before - and it was certain that we would not get home that day.  I was worrying that the food would get too warm.  Along with that, we had about $2000 worth of vaccines with us - a combination of meningitis and Hepatitis B.  It was now about 4 pm, and I knew that we had about 4 hours left to go before we could reach SLM.  We began to talk about whether or not Hannah and I should continue on, leaving Jim with the truck, and allowing us to reach SLM that night and head into our village the next morning.  We could open and clean the house, and put the cold stuff in the the freezer, and be ready for Jim when he got home the next day.  

 We needed to make the decision fairly quickly, because we were on the edge of being able to make it to SLM at a decent hour.  We usually avoid traveling at night if we can, especially if it is just 2 women.  We decided to go for it - so we shifted some loads around, made sure Jim had food and water, and took off in a race against the clock.

It all was going well - for the first 5 minutes.  But on the other side of the town, we ran into a snag.  A semi truck had been coming across a one way bridge and broke down just as he was about to exit the bridge.  His tires were touching the ground but the rest of the truck - stuck on the bridge!!! SERIOUSLY????  I started laughing…..it had just been that kind of day.  Hannah decided to take a nap as we waited to see if another semi could tow the first semi - BACKWARDS- off the bridge.  The line of people waiting to cross was getting longer.  Not only were we stuck on our side, but Dan and the mechanic were also stuck on the other side!  Soon a soldier knocked on my window to inform me that some people were using a bypass - through a river.  GREAT!  Sounds fun!  :^(   

We headed back to the bypass and found a narrow passage through a river - where it was necessary to weave between the big rocks that were underwater, along with the men bathing in the river - who were seemingly paying no attention to the vehicles slipping and sliding through the water beside them.  Each vehicle that passed made the exit and entrance to the river more and more slippery.  Every truck bottomed out as it tried to exit on the way out on the other side.  I was terrified.   

We had a heavy load that we were trying not to shift back and forth - but I knew that the rocking motion of climbing over the rocks was going to be rough.  On the other hand, IF I did get stuck, there would be LOTS of half clothed men to help push me out!  A van cut in front of me and waited for his turn.  Someone came and said something to the driver and he began to turn around.  He rolled down his window to inform me that the bridge had just opened up.  PERFECT!

We turned around and passed easily.   But the delay cost us valuable time.  By the time we reached the gas station in Mamou - it was 6 pm.  We would not arrive in SLM before 9 pm at the earliest - assuming that nothing else went wrong - and frankly, it had NOT been that kind of day.  We decided that it would not be wise to try to continue.  We turned back and went up the hill to the guesthouse where Melodie welcomed us.  We got settled and made some supper - and waited for Jim.  The mechanic spent a while taking apart the engine and trying a few repairs - and they finally decided to try to limp it back to Mamou.  It took them several hours- finally rolling in around 9:30 pm.  Jim was so happy to find us there - as he had been worrying about us traveling at night.

The next morning, Hannah and I headed out again to SLM - hoping to make it all the way home to our village.  We succeeded - arriving in the early afternoon.  We found everything in order - except our cat, who was quite pregnant!  Hannah was thrilled - me less so.

Wednesday passed, and Thursday, and Friday - and the mechanic was still not able to fix the truck.  Jim was frustrated, I was frustrated, the mechanic was frustrated.  We were working hard to maintain a good attitude.  Jim was safe - the truck was parked inside a compound - he had a nice guesthouse and friends to stay with - he had food - this was NOT our only vehicle - Hannah and I were able to make it home and found everything in good condition - the food and the vaccines were fine -  SO much to be grateful for - and yet we were tired and discouraged. 

The mechanic wanted to try another part that was not available in Mamou so Mr. Bah traveled from CKY to Mamou with the part.  No go!  Finally we decided that I would drive back to Mamou (about 5 hours one way) and load up our Cruiser - and bring Jim home.  We would leave the vehicle parked there until we would find the energy and strength to try to deal with it. 

Early Saturday I left Hannah at home and started out.  I was a bit nervous about leaving her behind.  Originally we didn’t have a phone to leave for her - therefore no way for us to communicate with her.  But I found an old phone, pieced it together with a battery from a different phone, and used a SIM chip from an internet key to be able to leave behind.  (I felt a bit like MacGyver!)

The trip went well.  We off loaded everything from the Hilux- into the Cruiser - and headed home, arriving around 8 pm.  Hannah had the house looking great and a nice meal on the table!

Wow!  What an experience!  I don’t EVER want to do something like that again!  As I write this, the truck remains in Mamou and we are trying to figure out a way to get it CKY.  But we are slowly recovering from the trauma of all of it - processing it and what we learned from it!  Hopefully, if there were lessons in all of it, we are learning them so they down have to be repeated!

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